One Pico Shutters on the Beach With the departure of executive chef Tim Goddell from Whist at the Viceroy hotel just across Ocean Avenue, One Pico has emerged as the best hotel dining room in Santa Monica. Chef Matt Lyman has been cooking some of the finest food in L.A. since his arrival at Shutters three years ago.
Nobody talks about One Pico, yet the place is always busy—with both food and service that are reliably outstanding. And as hard as it might be to fathom, it's almost impossible to find decent food with a great ocean view anywhere north of Laguna Beach and south of Santa Barbara. There may not be any crashing waves, but the wide sandy beach appears to go on for miles. Arrive just before dusk to watch the sun set over the Santa Monica Pier.
The hotel's exterior brings to mind Cape Cod; the airy, high-ceilinged, beamed dining room looks like that of a beachy Northeastern retreat, with the fireplace burning year-round. It's elegant, but informal. To start, the Dungeness crab salad with green apples cut like matchsticks, celery, walnuts, grapes, and cider dressing, is a winner. If you're dining among friends who like to share, double the order of rock shrimp ravioli with wilted pea sprouts and velvety lobster sauce, or you'll be sorry. Seared George Banks scallops are the Platonic ideal of a mollusk—sealed by the heat, moist inside, with nothing aggressive to mask the delicate flavor. Underneath lies an expertly executed (if undersalted) risotto, made bright green by puréed arugula and creamy with mascarpone cheese. I rarely order chicken, but Lyman prepares his free-range bird two ways, separately roasting the breast and braising the leg. Both are spot-on, enhanced by an intense chicken jus, shaved summer truffles, and a garlic-tinged corn-and-spinach sauté. If you want to feel like an eight-year-old again, order the "do-it-yourself s'mores" for dessert: four toasted house-made marshmallows, each sandwiched between graham crackers and skewered. Little pots of milk chocolate, dark chocolate, and caramel sauce encourage gooey dipping. 1 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica; 310/587-1717; dinner for two $105.
Gardens Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles at Beverly Hills This restaurant most closely approaches the 19th-century idea of what a good hotel dining room should be: welcoming in an understated way; dignified, yet not self-important; a place where you might enjoy eating on most nights of your extended stay. There is no room for look-at-me style in this unflashy, very correct, hotel. Guests are made to feel that they can blend in or stand out, depending on their mood. If a diner at the corner table is wearing black, the white linen napkin will be removed, unobtrusively, and replaced with a black one. At lunchtime, the garden, all wrought iron and greenery, beckons. A middle-aged rocker with long, blue-black hair comes outside, blinking in the sunlight, carrying a baby. He puts her in a car seat on his table and coos at her as he looks over the menu.
Where else in L.A. can you get a minute steak?Quickly grilled, with a generous dollop of herbed compound butter melting on top, it's just as it should be. Order hand-cut frites, stacked in a lattice, and a small watercress salad, and all is right with the world. Dinner is lovely, too: butter-poached lobster with black-truffle flan is perfect for a dressy night out. Tomato-fennel soup from the café menu is good for a casual, quiet bite. A goat cheese-covered crouton sits in the soup plate, and the waiter ladles the soup around it from a tureen—thick, delicious, a little spicy. If you feel like peering over the Pacific Rim, order three fat Thai crab cakes, crispy with panko, and dip them in hot-and-sour sauce. On the side comes delicious green papaya slaw. I'll be back, at the usual time, tomorrow evening. 300 S. Doheny Dr., Beverly Hills; 310/385-4950; dinner for two $110.
Balboa Grafton on Sunset The Sunset Strip steak house resembles neither a steak house nor a hotel restaurant. It looks like, well, the lounge of the moment. Designed by local architecture firm Tag Front, it's stylish and small, with a wall made entirely of twigs; luscious caramel-hued, leather banquettes; and stacked, multi-colored Lucite light fixtures. It's too cool-looking to be anything but a hipster hangout. Don't let that fool you: the food is terrific.
Unless you're a vegetarian, order the 40-day dry-aged Aurora Angus New York strip. Choose from among nine sauces—"housemade" Worcester-shire, "J.1." (the house version of A.1.), smoky Cabernet reduction, béarnaise—but don't sweat the decision; they're all just fine. The Caesar salad, though prepared tableside (always fun), is rather pedestrian; instead, try the Vidalia onion and Maytag blue cheese tart with crisp country ham. Don't get too caught up in the appetizers: the steak's the thing. It arrives perfectly cooked, with the seductive, almost gamy complexity well-aged beef should have. Come on a Sunday night, when every bottle of wine—including half bottles—is half price. A 2000 Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape for $30?It's like a beautiful dream. 8462 W. Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood; 323/650-8383; dinner for two $95.
Belvedere The Peninsula Beverly Hills Don't mention "hotel food" around Bill Bracken, executive chef at the Peninsula Beverly Hills, or you may find yourself being shouted down by quite an imposing figure. Bracken is probably the most charismatic of L.A.'s hotel chefs, as well as one of the most creative. But he doesn't take himself too seriously—this very tall fellow has a shaved head, a Vandyke beard, a gold earring, and a jaunty seersucker chef's jacket that he had to fight the hotel's general manager to adopt.
Bracken's sense of whimsy shows on the plate—a welcome twist in a pretty-but-staid dining room. Bluefin tuna "lollipops" consist of fat cubes of raw fish speared on actual lollipop sticks. Give in to the primal urge to order "macaroni and cheese": elbow pasta with Taleggio, shaved black truffles, and a Parmesan tuile.
Bracken really excels, however, with more-serious dishes. If lamb three ways is on the menu, don't hesitate. The braised lamb shank with tapenade of eggplant and the mini-New Zealand lamb chop, wrapped in an English pea purée and caul fat, are both wonderful, but the loin, poached slowly in olive oil, is the real showstopper—intensely flavorful, purity itself, the essence of baby lamb.
Desserts here can feel overly architectural for the 21st century; the simplest are the most appealing—artisanal cheeses from the trolley, Meyer lemon pudding cake with raspberry sorbet, a homey assortment of "cookies-n-milk." How sweet it is. 9882 S. Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills; 310/788-2306; dinner for two $100.
LESLIE BRENNER is the editor of the Los Angeles Times Food Section and a former T+L contributing editor.